Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Talks on Two Channels? The Qatar office and Karzai’s Saudi option

Thomas Ruttig 9 min

The latest reports about developments on reconciliation – or better: talks with insurgent groups, both with the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami* – have been rather contradictory. Or haven’t they? The main insight from these reports, is that President Karzai has only rhetorically bowed to the unilateral US/German thrust to establish a Taleban liaison office in Qatar, estimates Thomas Ruttig, Senior Analyst at AAN, and that he tries to develop his own channel of talks now, independent of the US, instrumentalising Qatari-Saudi tensions.

Open or not open, that’s the question many media currently follow about the planned Taleban office in Qatar. Such an office would allow meaningful talks with the by far strongest insurgent movement in Afghanistan, and an agreement to establish one had been reached between the US and the Taleban and confirmed by the latter in early January. Now, over last days, contradictory reports have appeared about whether the office is already functional or even has been officially opened or not.
Former Taleban officials residing in Kabul now have told the New York Times that ‘four to eight Taliban representatives had traveled to Qatar from Pakistan to set up a political office’. The names mentioned by Afghan and western media include Mulla Omar’s former ‘chef de cabinet’ Tayyeb Agha, who had been central to the German-Qatari effort that paved the way for the US-Taleban contacts, Sher Abbas Stanekzai, a former minister in the Taleban Emirate (and in their very early days their only higher official with sufficient English to communicate with the outside world**), their former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Shahabuddin Delawar, Hafiz Aziz-ur-Rahman, the Taleban’s third secretary in their Abu Dhabi embassy before 2001, who – according to the Daily Telegraph – has lived in Qatar for several years, and finally Sohail Shahin who has worked at the unrecognised Taleban representation in New York and in their official newspaper Shariat in Kabul until 2001.

The three Taleban mentioned first have belonged to their Political Commission which had been set up exactly with the aim to probe the chances for talks and which has been involved in earlier, rejected Taleban attempts to reach out. (There was also an unconfirmed report that relatives of the Gitmo prisoners have arrived in Qatar.)

The Kabul government immediately denied the report. Massum Stanakzai, chief executive of the High Peace Council (HPC) and, with ministerial rank, Karzai’s man for reconciliation & reintegration, told Kabul-based TOLOnewsin an exclusive interview that talks are still going on about the modalities under which the office can open.

The office, open yet or not, is not supposed to be an ‘Embassy’, a fund-raising basis etc. That’s at least what the US and Kabul insist on. But Afghan sources familiar with the talks told the author that, nevertheless, it will have a signboard at its gate saying ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the quasi-governmental title the Taleban movement has been using or years. If this is true, this would be a step forward for the Taleban who, of course, want to be seen as an officially recognised party in the Afghan conflict. Practically, however, it doesn’t matter much whether the office has been opened or not. Meetings can be held anywhere. This has been shown by the previous contacts held in Qatar.

More importantly, as the government in Kabul claims, these meetings had been held without it having been fully informed and the office agreed upon without its prior consent. This had led to a diplomatic crisis between Afghanistan and Qatar and Karzai had called his ambassador back from there. Officially, this has been settled meanwhile: Kabul grudgingly gave its official okay for the office in Doha and Kabul even stated a week ago, through its Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin, that it would agree if the US transferred Taleban prisoners from Guantanamo to Qatar to reunite them with their families. But Kabul still demands, we understand, some form of Qatari apology before it gives its consent for the official opening of the Taleban office now.

All sides directly involved in Qatar are carefully avoiding to creating too high expectations. ‘American officials would not deny that [new] meetings had taken place’, the New York Times reported. On the Taleban side, their spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also did not want to confirm the names reported but said that indeed a ‘preliminary’ delegation was in Qatar.

A few days earlier, US AfPak envoy Marc Grossman made it clear that ‘talks’ are still a long way off. Notice the difference between meetings and talks. First, he said, the Afghan-Qatari tensions and also US-Pakistani problems, after Islamabad told him not to come there on his current trip, have to be settled. Secondly, he demanded that the Taleban needed to make an official statement that they actually intend to engage in peace talks and don’t use the Qatar office to enhance their international prestige and publicly renounce their links with al-Qaeda. While the first demand is a bit obnoxious (an official office of whatever character will increase the Taleban’s political status anyway, particular with the signboard described above), the second one is neither new nor impossible to acquire – maybe not as a unilateral Taleban step but as a quid pro quo, with the Americans putting some prominent Taleban prisoners in Gitmo under Qatari house arrest and oversight. The way for this has been opened by Ludin’s statement quoted above. But the real hurdle are US laws that do not allow such a step. But when, as the Daily Telegraph says, the Taleban who have arrived in Qatar were ‘apparently granted safe passage to the Gulf state despite several members still being on a United Nations’ sanctions blacklist banning international travel’, also a transfer (not release!) of Taleban prisoners cannot be ruled out.

That’s exactly what one of the Telegraph’s sources, Mawlawi Qalamuddin, the former Taleban minister of vice and virtue and now a member of the High Peace Council, insisted was already going on: ‘Currently there are no peace talks going on […]. The only thing is the negotiations over release of Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo’. According to the New York Times, these negotiations are ‘fairly advanced’. According to Sayyed Muhammad Akbar Agha, the former leader of a temporary – and probably tactical*** – Taleban splinter group who has emerged as one of the main commentators on the issue, the Qatar meetings focus on the way how the prisoners are to be transferred. He said ‘that five Taliban prisoners were to be transferred in two phases, two or three in one group and then the remainder’. According to the same report ‘there has also been discussion in Qatar of removing some Taliban members from NATO’s “kill or capture” lists’. The BBC reports further that the US want the release of ‘three of its citizens held by the Taliban and its affiliates’. Including a soldier captured in Paktika and an aid worker kidnapped in Pakistan. All three are believed to be held in North Waziristan, the area widely controlled by the Haqqani network and Pakistani Taleban factions. Washington reckons that a release could prove Mulla Omar’s influence over these factions.

In the talks process in general, it seems that a few hurdles have fallen – or are, at least, not as high as before. First, as our former EU colleague Michael Semple recently told NPR, ‘the Taliban movement, its leadership, have officially committed themselves to engaging in a political process. For the past ten years, we just have not been there.’ Also Islamabad might cooperate now. Qalamuddin is quoted as saying that if Pakistan did not approve of the talks, it would have arrested the Taleban delegates to Qatar, just as it did with Mullah Baradar after he held ‘unauthorised’ talks with the Kabul government in 2010. According to Arsala Rahmani, the acting HPC head, the Taleban interlocutors boarded planes in Pakistan. This would not be possible without ISI consent.

But new hurdles are also emerging. The BBC has learned from (or was told by) ‘Western and Afghan officials’ in Kabul, and has reported it today, that President Karzai plans to open an ‘other effort’ to talk with the Taleban, through Saudi Arabia, ‘in the coming weeks, before the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar’.

‘A senior Afghan government official told the BBC: “Even if the Taliban office is established in Qatar we will obviously pursue other efforts in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey.” […] The Taliban, contacted by the BBC, refused to comment on the move.’

Although it would be surprising that the Taleban suddenly dropped their position not to talk to what they call the ‘puppet regime’ in Kabul, it cannot be excluded, too, that they want to play their different interlocutors against each other. On Karzai’s part, this announcement can be read as a sign of his remaining anger with Qatar and, first of all, the US and an attempt to counter, or even undermine, this channel not controlled by him.

Karzai might be able to play on tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two oil-rich neighbours. While Saudi Arabia has become more conservative and anti-Western under King Abdullah (since 2005), Qatar has established itself as a relatively liberal Arab regime and a trusted ally of and provider of military bases for the West in the Gulf region, just across from Iran. Riyadh might not be happy watching its much smaller neighbour claiming a prominent role in the progress of Taleban talks while its own initiative, in the fall of 2008, had faltered.

These were the famous Iftar meetings when the former Taleban, as part of a governmental delegation also including former Northern Alliance leaders, had their first high-profile international appearance. Pakistani politicians like Nawaz Sharif, Aftab Sherpao and Fazl-ur-Rahman (of the JUI-F party) also had been invited and rumours – never convincingly confirmed or denied – had it that representatives of the still active Taleban (the ubiquitous Tayyeb Agha and possibly Mawlawi Kabir, a former Taleban ‘acting prime minister’) also attended.

In the US, meanwhile, there are a number of voices who insist that the Taleban are too fragmented and who doubt that Mulla Omar – who hasn’t been seen or his voice heard since late 2001 – still commands the authority and respect to ensure that the Taleban ‘deliver’ on any future agreement. While this concern is understandable, the pessimism should also not be exaggerated. For example, Semple says that

‘few people appreciate how rapidly the debate inside the Taliban has changed over even the past few weeks […]. The responsible elements in the Taliban leadership have decided that the prospect of another round of civil war [is] so horrendous that they’re prepared to take some risks to avoid it’.

Also read Steve Coll’s latest New Yorker article**** who refers to Vali Nasr, a former advisor to late Richard Holbrooke: ‘There was no doubt in our mind that, both symbolically and pragmatically, [Mulla Omar] held all the keys to unlocking the Taliban problem. There is no legitimacy to a Taliban decision without him. … He is the Ho Chi Minh of the war.’***** Or Kai Eide in his book that is just out in English about the 2008 Peace Day when he had approached the Taleban with the request to hold all operations:

‘When we later looked at the statistics for that day, it seemed that the number of security incidents reported had dropped by around 70 percent. That was more than I had expected. A total cessation of hostilities was unrealistic […]. But a 70 percent reduction seemed to reflect that there was a command structure of some kind on the other side and that it had responded.’

A 70 per cent reduction of violence in Afghanistan is an aim to go for, in a possible ceasefire – an option discussed currently also with NATO/ISAF – or even for a final agreement. (It needs to be added here – particularly for those of our readers who will see this statement as another sign of my sinister ‘pro-Taleban position’ – that such agreement is only one part of reasonable and inclusive negotiated settlement. Read more here, particularly the para that starts with: ‘If civil society actors and other veto groups, i.e. ethnic minorities and anti-Taleban mujahedin, organized women, pro-democratic forces […] are out-manoeuvred and excluded again…’.)

And then there is, finally, still Pakistan that might continue to play its double game. Its recent arrest and extradition of some German intelligence officials might be a revenge for Berlin’s role as a facilitator of the Qatar talks. Also, recent rumours (read here or here) about changes at the top of the Peshawar Shura which moved it closer to al-Qaeda might be psychological warfare to undermine the legitimacy of the Taleban’s Qatar interlocutors. The ‘green light’ mentioned by Rahmani has probably been given, but as grudgingly as Karzai did so and only after the US and the Taleban had established a fait accompli.

Despite the allegedly good news – Qatar office, confidence-building measures and all -the situation is still much more difficult then it seemed over the past weeks. The time for posturing, not least between Kabul and Washington, is not over yet. This does not bode well for the sincerity needed for getting substantial talks on the way – which would be difficult enough even without the new political sniping.

* While Kabul has been in ongoing contacts with this second largest insurgency group since a few years, the US also seem to have joined. President Karzai confirmed in his inaugural speech on 21 January in the Wolesi Jirga, that ‘[r]ecently we had talks with delegations from the Hizb-i-Islami of Afghanistan led by His Excellency Engineer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’. (He means that Hezb is led by Gulbuddin; the delegation that visited Kabul was headed by Hekmatyar’s deputy and son-in-law Ghairat Bahir.) Bahir later claimed ‘that he had met separately with David Petraeus, former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan who is now CIA director, and had face-to-face discussions earlier this month with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, currently the top commander in the country’. This was neither denied nor confirmed by the US government. Read a recent extremely interesting account on Hekmatyar and his relations with the US (and Ambassador Khalilzad in particular) on al-Jazeera here.

** I think I was the first one in Germany to interview him in June 1996 when he – unofficially – visited Germany. The headline of my interview used an interesting quote of him: ‘Election yes, but without us’. For the record, I will post a full translation of it later.

*** Or maybe it was even just a business approach, ‘outsourcing’ the immoral kidnapping business from the mainstream Taleban movement. (Akbar Agha’s group was accused for the abduction of three international UN workers in the fall of 2004 in Kabul which, fortunately, ended with the release of the three. Akbar Agha later denied that his group was involved.) This suspicion will continue to exist until the Taleban make clear whether Akbar Agha really talks for them or not.

**** Not online, unfortunately.

***** Coll adds later that Holbrooke’s conclusion from this was to go for Mulla Omar’s killing or capturing: ‘The more I look at this thing, the more I think he is a driving inspirational force whose capture or elimination would have a material effect. […] I don’t think we can negotiate with Mullah [sic] Omar, personally. That’s why I think eliminating Mullah Omar is so critical.’ Coll also quotes Anand Gopal who is working, together with Bette Dam (both frequent AAN contributors) on a more extensive portrait of the Taleban leader, and various sources say similar things: that Mulla Omar is likely ‘in Karachi and effectively under house arrest’, ie Pakistani control. If this is correct, that sheds another light on the Pakistani ‘green light’ for talks in Qatar.


Hamid Karzai Qatar Taleban